Energy and Literature

This is the text for a talk I will give at the MLA 2015 in Vancouver on a roundtable “Envisioning the Energy Humanities, NarratingEnergy Pasts and Futures” in VCC West Room 121 from 10-11:30. 
The energy humanities excite thought, invigorate methodology, and entice research. In one jolt the proposition that humanities researchers, literary scholars among them, address history from the standpoint of energy joins against accusations of irrelevance that humanities departments face. In Imre Szeman and Dominic Boyer’s provocation “The Rise of the Energy Humanities,” they pose a crucial question for our times: “How to work towards a sustainable energy future?” (Boyer and Szeman 2014). It would seem that there is no time like the present to come to terms, on a number of fronts, with the cultural, economic, and political roles of energy in late capitalism and its historical development.
In this way the energy humanities must operate in a reflective mode, since it comes late to the party otherwise populated by scientists and policy makers. But, the energy humanities ought to be anticipatory too, since humanities scholars bring a hermeneutic precision to the table that allows us to engage the relationship between narrative and duration. Put otherwise we seek to understand the contemporary (or many contemporaries) as energy soaked moments in history.
Where, how, and when to incorporate energy into our various and varied research programs? I would like to offer an all-too broad methodological schematic for the study of literature and energy. We could:
– include energy in the narrative frame in a New Historical approach
– locate the signs of energy through a New Critical practice of close reading
– assess trends across a set of digitized texts in a Distant Reading approach
– return to old archives, asking which Genres are germane to the study of energy?
– read for the gaps left by energy in a Symptomaticapproach
New Historical and New Critical approaches could return to novels such as Charles Dickens’s Hard Times (1854), which offers a bleak description of Coketown: “It was a town of red brick, or of brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it…It was a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves forever and ever, and never got uncoiled” (Dickens 1994, 19). Here we see the obvious sign of coal’s impact on the realist novel. What can Hard Times tell us about the impacts of carbon energy on the industrial revolution or on the bodies that lived and labored in such places or on the soil, the air, and the water? Are other texts similarly marked?
A Distant Readingapproach could look for energy keywords in a variety of texts and genres. Reading energy on the level of content would be a way to understand when and how an energy source arises in literary form and to ask which forms seem to come to terms with energy, in any given manner, most prominently and most directly. This approach could be a way to move beyond the broad questions, towards more focused research on stories about wood, about coal, about oil, about nuclear energy, and so on. We already know how to do these things, and it is amazing how attuned distant and close reading in particular are to gleaning for the narratological qualities of energy.
When it comes to Genre, considering my other work on post-apocalyptic narratives, I would ask, what does it mean to write about an energy scarce future in the midst of an energy rich one? And, what can we learn by reading against the grain in stories set after the end of petromodernity? Other questions materialize rather quickly once we begin to look for energy in relation to other literary genres.
We could perform a Symptomatic Reading that looks for energy as a kind of structuring absence. Amitav Ghosh asks why the oil encounter has not produced the same literary response as the colonial spice encounter did—there are many novels about the spice trade, where are the oil novels? A symptomatic approach to energy would need to follow Patricia Yaeger’s suggestion that “…energy invisibilities may constitute different kinds of erasures” than other invisibilities (Yaeger 2011, 309).
These suggested approaches cannot be read without attendant theoretical commitments, and it is my suspicion that once we wed them with our other driving concerns, such as decolonization, anti-racism, feminism, queer politics, and ecocriticism, we will begin to work towards a radical idea of what the energy humanities can be and do for our future. Perhaps it is the authority of oil as energy that precludes its narrativization on the same level as the spice encounter or the industrial uses of coal. Beyond a doubt, the fact that its role is being re-narrated today demonstrates that the age of its flourishing is at a crucial moment for intervention.


Boyer, Dominic and Imre Szeman. “The Rise of Energy Humanities: Breaking the Impasse.” University Affairs (12 February 2014) Web.
Dickens, Charles. Hard Times. Penguin: New York, 1994. Print.
Yaeger, Patricia. “Editor’s Column: Literature in the Ages of Wood, Tallow, Coal, Whale-Oil, Gasoline, Atomic Power and Other Energy Sources.” PMLA 126:2 (2011): 305-10. Print.

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